New federal PFAS report details risks, pathways for ‘forever chemicals’

PFAS gets the nickname of “forever chemicals”, the report notes, due to their stable resistance to biodegradation, hydrolysis, photolysis, and thermolysis. Illustration Credit: Сергей Шиманович,

*The following regulatory news article is intended to be a preview of the legislation or report and not a replacement for the actual guidance from the government. For the comprehensive data and all relevant information, please visit the linked source material within the article.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has released a new report as a draft assessment that identifies the potential risks and contamination pathways for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, for the environment and human health.

PFAS are a group of more than 4,700 synthetic chemicals that have been part of industrial processes and consumer product production for items such as food packaging, textiles, firefighting foams and cosmetics. Some of these substances can be absorbed into the body and natural environment, persisting for many years.

The new, in-depth 215-page report suggests that the widespread use of these substances has led to the presence of certain PFAS in humans and nearly all environmental areas, including ambient air, surface waters, groundwater, marine waters, and soil as well as in landfill leachates, wastewater influent and effluent, sewage sludge, and contaminated sites.

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PFAS gets the nickname of “forever chemicals”, the report notes, due to their stable resistance to biodegradation, hydrolysis, photolysis, and thermolysis.

The report dives into how PFAS are integrally tied to the production of certain products. In terms of their use in cosmetics, for instance, the report states that between 1993 and 2020, a total of 4,775 formal notifications were made to Health Canada for products containing one or more PFAS. Approximately 90% of these were for leave-on products such as makeup and moisturizers intended to be used on the body, face, lips and eye areas. Most of these products (86.5%) contain listed PFAS at or below a concentration of 3%. In about 2.5% of the products, PFAS ingredients were above a concentration of 10%.

The report also looks at PFAS in retail food and cookware, air and dust, as well as PFAS in drinking water, where it states to have found 20 total detectable PFAS compounds.

Sites contaminated with aqueous film-forming foams such as those used in firefighting are common PFAS pathways. Firefighters in particular have recorded elevated levels of PFHxS, PFOS, PFDA, and PFOA when compared to the general population. Exposure to PFAS can affect multiple organs and systems, the report states. The main targets include the liver, immune system, kidney, reproduction, development, endocrine disruption, nervous system, and metabolism.

Wastewater plant influent and effluent as well as biosolids are also known to carry PFAS, the report states. Notably, the report says that perfluoroalkyl acids known as PFAAs can be formed during wastewater treatment, “likely as a result of the transformation of unmeasured precursors entering WWTPs.” The amount of PFAAs formed is dependent on process temperature and treatment type. A 2014 study into influent, effluent, and solids samples collected from 15 Canadian WWTPs found that perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, was the predominant PFAA in wastewater, with concentrations ranging from 2.2 ng/L to 150 ng/L in influent and 1.9 ng/L to 140 ng/L in effluent.

Lastly, the report details PFAS removal and treatment methods. It notes that separation technologies are most commonly used for the treatment of an environment contaminated with PFAS, although destructive technologies are under active research. In terms of PFAS removal from water, the report suggests that the most effective treatment technologies are granular activated carbon, anion exchange, and membrane filtration options such as reverse osmosis and nanofiltration.

Following assessment activities completed in 2006 and 2012, the manufacture, use, sale, offer for sale, and import of three subgroups of PFAS have been prohibited in Canada, with limited exemptions, through the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations, 2012.

The public comment period on the draft state of PFAS report is open until July 19, 2023.

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